July 5, 2013

Reflection / John F. Fink

The virtue of patriotism

John F. FinkAs we observe the 237th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence this week, it’s a good time to reflect on the virtue of patriotism. A case can be made that Catholics have been, and should be, the greatest patriots.

And why not? Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration stated that “all men are created equal,” which from its very language is a religious principle as well as a principle of democracy. As Bishop John F. Noll wrote in his book The Decline of Nations, “The philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is the philosophy of the Church.”

Bishop Noll was the founder of the national newspaper Our Sunday Visitor in 1912 and bishop of Fort Wayne from 1925-56. A short biography is included in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. Each chapter in that catechism is preceded by a short biography.

Two centuries before Jefferson wrote the Declaration, St. Robert Bellarmine championed democracy. He wrote, “Secular or civil power is instituted by men; it is in the people, unless they bestow it on a prince. … It depends upon the consent of the multitude to ordain over themselves a king, or consul, or other magistrates; and if there be a lawful cause, the multitude may change the kingdom into an aristocracy or democracy.”

At that time—the 16th century—monarchs asserted “the divine right of kings,” a notion that was widely accepted, but opposed by Catholics. Thus the Magna Carta (Latin for “Great Charter”) was a document forced upon England’s King John in 1215 by Catholic barons. The document was important in the colonization of American colonies because they used it in the development of their legal systems.

Although it is often stated that the Catholic Church is not a democracy since the people cannot vote on doctrines, it nevertheless contains many of the ideas that are vital to a democracy. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson recognized that when he wrote, referring to the Middle Ages, “The Roman Church was then, as it is now, a great democracy. There was no peasant so humble that he might not become pope of Christendom.”

The Catholic Church’s greatest bishops have also been great patriots. That began with Archbishop John Carroll, the first U.S. bishop and archbishop. While he was still a priest, he was part of a diplomatic mission to Canada to try to get that country to side with the colonies during the Revolutionary War.

Archbishop Carroll’s cousin, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Md., signed the Declaration of Independence. He had more to lose than the other signers since he was the wealthiest man in the colonies. Later, he was a senator from Maryland and was the last of the signers to die, at age 95.

Archbishop Carroll’s older brother, Daniel, was one of the signers of the U.S. Constitution. He also donated a quarter of the land on which the U.S. Capitol is built.

Cardinal James Gibbons was Archbishop of Baltimore from 1887 to 1921. Historians refer to those years as “the era of Gibbons” and historian Theodore Maynard said of him, “He was the most influential and widely loved prelate that America has ever produced.” He was also widely known for his patriotism.

He was honored in 1911 on his 25th anniversary as a cardinal, with President William Howard Taft, former President Theodore Roosevelt and Chief Justice Edward White among the speakers. When it was Cardinal Gibbons’ chance to reply, he turned to President Taft and said, “You were pleased to mention my pride in being an American citizen. It is the proudest earthly title I possess.”

Ordinary Catholics have proved their patriotism in our wars, beginning with the Revolutionary War—even during those times in our history when Catholics were discriminated against. During World War I, the war fought “to make the world safe for democracy,” more than 800,000 Catholics served in the military forces and more than 22,000 were killed. In World War II, about 30 percent of the military personnel were Catholics—far beyond their proportion of the total population.

As we celebrate Independence Day, let us stand up for the freedom to practice our religion that is guaranteed by the Constitution.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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